You don't have to be the fixer
You do not need to fix every problem you notice. You do not need to sign up for more problems to solve. Sometimes it is better to let problems be problems rather than answer our urge to solve them.
In therapy, we say “the problem is the problem.”
This is one of the ways we help our clients zoom out from themselves and see that they are not the problem; the problem is the problem. Sure, someone may be a part of the problem or somehow involved in a dynamic that keeps the problem going. But people are not inherently defective, though many of us come to believe in our inherent defectiveness.
Many of us are well-practiced in the arenas of self-judgment and self-criticism. When we’ve learned to do that with ourselves, we may start to do it with others around us. Humans are funny this way— we get used to our way of doing things and we replicate those patterns in other spaces and other relationships.
Despite what you’ve learned, you do not have to fix every problem you notice. It is not your job to be the fixer, solver, and helper of every single problem you encounter. You notice problems because you’re attuned to what’s wrong, unfair, or incorrect. You notice easier or more efficient ways of doing things. You may have learned that your value comes from being helpful and caring but you might also be burning yourself out by trying to fix everything around you.
Where does this come from? How does this start? These are two questions that drive my thinking around this set of behaviours. Here are my thoughts: We do not need to fix something that isn’t a problem in the first place. I often wonder if we’re effective at noticing which problems are problems that truly require a solution and which problems are better left alone.
Problem spotting is a term I use to describe a pattern of noticing and identifying problems in others or our surroundings that don’t have easy solutions. We often do this in order to avoid going inward or connecting interpersonally. Sometimes we talk about a problem to avoid addressing it with the person or to avoid connecting with how it makes us feel.
Sometimes it is helpful to identify everything that needs to be fixed, but most often it leaves us feeling stressed, depressed, and even helpless. It has become a norm in our culture to spot problems. While this is well-intentioned, I wonder if it is actually fuelled by an unhealthy need for everything to be perfect, without flaw, and without discomfort.
Noticing problems everywhere
Here’s a hard psychological truth: Some people have a tendency to notice problems everywhere except within themselves. If there are problems with everything, the best place to start is to look within.
Noticing problems in others might be easier than noticing them in ourselves. As humans, we have a tendency to project our internal problems outwardly— sometimes to see them more clearly and sometimes to distance ourselves from them. In any case, when a problem seems overwhelming, confusing, or quite frankly unsolvable, it is best to get curious and self-reflect: what do I think about this? how is it making me feel? why is it making me feel this way? what options do I have?
The urge to manage
One of the ways we take control over problems we don’t have enough control over is to manage them. The truth is that it is not your job to make sure everyone is following the rules. Your calling is not to micro-manage, it is to make room for problems to exist without your invention. That does not make you a bad parent, partner, friend, or family member. We all have our strengths, but managing is only a strength if it is paired with rest and care. You can’t manage everything. And you don’t have to.
We go into manager mode in order to ease our own stress about the problem before us. It is a way we control others in an attempt to control how we feel inside. Not everyone is going to act in alignment with your values — and monitoring other people’s choices might just be making you more stressed, angry, and resentful. Protect your peace by focusing on yourself. Focus on what you need rather than trying to get your needs met by making everyone act how you think they should. People are not always going to act in a way that makes us feel good.
The urge to fix
Resist the urge to nit-pick and notice every flaw. Your worth is still in tact when you’re not helping, solving, and fixing. Fixing makes you feel good, but you do not have to fix every problem you notice. Perhaps you give good advice, but you do not need to be in constant fix-it and advice-giving mode all the time. You deserve to let things be. Take the vacation.
Sometimes it is better for your mental health to let problems be problems. You don’t have to jump in to fix and solve. It might feel good to help, but you might also be overstepping your role or providing solutions when people don’t need them. Let things be what they are. Listen more. Let people solve their own problems.
Having an opinion about everything
In today’s say-whatever-you-want climate, there exists a pressure to have an opinion about everything. One of the ways we respond to this pressure is by busying ourselves with problems to solve and opinions to keep up with. Discard your impulse to respond to things that are out of your lane. You don’t have to force an opinion you know nothing about and you don’t have to fix things that are not yours to fix. It saves you time, peace of mind, and spares you the performance headache.
When it comes to confusing, stressful, or controversial topics, it is sometimes best to just listen and absorb rather than conform and perform. Your life is not a cable news program and you don’t need to be the pundit who gives the hot-take or works people to a solution. Sometimes it is healthier to slow down, wait, and observe our surroundings rather than adjust them to our liking.
Let people solve their own problems
Sometimes it is best to trust that others are capable of solving their own problems. They don’t always need someone to do it for them. There are exceptions to this, of course. Children, for example, need adult guidance and modelling. They naturally need help solving their problems. Teenagers, on the other hand, may push back against adult intervention, for they are wired to seek independence and tend to resist being controlled. If they want to solve their own problems, we should let them.
Parents and caregivers of teenagers know that this doesn’t mean doing nothing; it means sitting by to support with problem solving and trouble shooting where required. It means stepping in if (and only if) they are showing us they cannot do it on their own after multiple attempts to do so. Nonetheless, teenagers do not learn to solve problems on their own when everything is done for them. This is the hallmark task of building independence: Getting practice solving our own problems and being seen as fully capable of doing so.
Stick to your own knitting
Let’s be honest: noticing problems, having opinions about them, and stepping in to fix, solve, and manage them is exhausting. It’s exhausting because it is not our default mode as humans. We are built to solve problems and overcome obstacles, but not all the time. You do not have to sign up for more problems to solve. You likely have enough.
Sometimes it is better to mind our own business and “stick to our own knitting,” as my grandmother would often say. I never fully knew what that meant when I would try, in my best intentions, to help solve all the problems around me. Whether it was helping my friends solve problems at recess or helping my siblings learn how to read, in my quest to help others feel good and to feel needed myself, I overlooked an important aspect of problem solving: People are not the problem. The problem is the problem. And it is not one person’s job to solve, fix, and manage everything. We care a lot, which is why we help, but true problem solving requires collaboration and communication.
In order to be effective problem solvers, we have to become really good at not just noticing problems, but noticing and asking what people need from us. We become better helpers when we become more effective at collaborating with others, which requires us to listen rather than give an opinion, connect rather than manage, and trust or empower others to solve a problem rather than fix or do it for them.
This is complex stuff, so the first step is to let yourself off the hook for any self-criticism you may be feeling as you read this.
You are not the problem. The problem is the problem. And when we do it together, we can solve a whole lot.
Thanks for reading,